Singing the Blues

The other day, my daughter, Jessica, wrote me a lovely note about my essay on very old age.  She thought it was well done but wished that I was not so preoccupied with death.  It’s easy to understand her concern.  I’m glad to know that she doesn’t want me to leave this world just yet.  But hers is not the only voice of concern.  Numbers of friends have also worried.   They take my interest in “dark” subjects to be a sign of depression or resignation.  I am a little chagrined at their angst.  I’m feeling good these days.  All this attention to illness, death, and dying  actually lifts my spirit.

I do understand the value of staying on the sunny side of the street—and I am often transported by upbeat music.  I get it that my father-in-law, Albert, when invited to watch upsetting movies, would always say “No thanks.  I get enough of that in life.  Give me a good, happy show tune and I’m a happy man.”  I love happy endings, too.  I enjoy the feel of optimism and sunshine.

But I also love the blues.  I love it straight when Billy Holiday sings Stormy Weather, and I love the way Count Basie transmutes that down and out feeling into a sense of well being.  Jazz has always been my favorite music.  Like my interest in difficult subjects, the blues has a way of “saying of things that are very painful, deep and poignant, with a feeling of ease. In the very best blues the pain changes, because of the music, into something light.”  That’s how I feel when I’m engrossed in a problem and when I’ve worked it through.  That’s how I feel with almost every essay I write for my blog.

Some of my pleasure comes from the act of making something artful out of darkness—or simply the pleasure in making something.  I have always loved making things—houses and kitchens and organizations.  The act of turning nothing into something, disorder into order, has an intrinsic delight for me.  As the critic, Alan Shapiro, says of jazz,That lightness and ease come to be because the musical form given to those feelings—in both the organization of the words and the notes—shows the world has a structure that is logical and sensible, and makes for a good time!” The pleasure of transforming sadness or fear into calm or joy ups the ante powerfully.

The very same essay that worried Jessica, brought comfort and shared relief to a number of people.  Numbers of friends of mine shared it with friends of theirs.  The shared story seems to make them feel closer.

Giving order and meaning to pain transforms it.  Here is how Alan Shapiro describes Bessie Smith singing Thinking Blues:

“… there is a wail in her voice, but there is also triumph and joy. For instance, as she sings the words “ever” and “thousand,” there is agony in her sliding blue notes, yet there is lightness, too; her voice rises on those words, giving them a lift. And as she sustains the word “old” at the start of the second verse, she sounds strong, assertive, but there is a beautiful trembling in her vibrato. Throughout, Bessie Smith’s voice is deep and bright, rich and piercing. As she sings, we feel the painful and the pleasing don’t have to fight; they can go together beautifully.”

During the years when I was most determined to understand myself,  the years I was learning to be a psychotherapist, people were talking about hallucinogenic drugs and the way they made deep explorations possible.  I avoided them, afraid that I might not be able to manage the demons within me.  A few years earlier, I had learned that a young man, who I had taken care of as a child, had blown his mind on an acid trip and had to be institutionalized.  That was not for me.  But the more familiar I grew with my demons, the less fearful I was.  Eventually, I embarked on my first journey into my darkest places in order to learn what was there.

Instead of hiding from my fears, I sought them out.  When you are tripping, fear first emerges as an atmosphere, like a dark cloudy day.  Instead of holding off  the clouds, I welcomed them.  Seeking insight, I beckoned the demons to come closer, hoping that they would stay around long enough for me to see them clearly.  I hoped that the insights gained would later help me resolve some of my fears.  But the demons just flowed by.  When you try to hold fear off, it becomes like the Tar Baby, sticking more and more.  I kept beckoning and looking and they kept flowing, which, for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time, put me in a very light and lovely mood.  And that’s how I emerged from my hallucinatory journey.  Ever since then, I have looked upon fears in a paradoxical way: by welcoming them, learning from them,  they flow by, leaving a feeling of peace in their wake.

Some of this transformation of mood can be explained physiologically, something like the emergence of the high or the calm following hard exercise.  Let me return to music in order to explain, this time through the eyes of science.  The appeal of sad music spans historical periods and cultures.  It evokes emotions such as bliss and awe—and  sadness.  What’s more, sad and mournful music is more likely than happy music to arouse the intensely pleasurable responses referred to as chills. This response, says Kristine Batcho, is partly attributable to the release of hormones like oxytocin and prolactin, which are associated with social bonding, nurturance, and a sense of well being.

I like that the research brings together civilization’s long history of pairing pain and pleasure.  As an old rock n roller, Theresa Brewer, once sang, “you can’t have one without the other.”  It is generally pain and fear that open the heart to the richness within.  We see what we have avoided and learn that it is bearable.  This single insight—that we can bear to see almost any feeling, thought, or fantasy, that we can know ourselves without revulsion—gives us the courage to live less fearfully and more fully.

Facing our demons leads to what might be called an authentic encounter with ourselves, which then emboldens us to live more compassionately with others.  When listening raptly and entering into the lyrics of sad songs, listeners know that others have shared sorrow.  We all know about lovers who have left, parents and grandparents who have died, friends who have found other friends.  For the time that the music is playing, each of us becomes part of a of a compassionate community of listeners.  For that moment, we feel close to others and at greater ease with ourselves.

So my dear daughter, fear not.  I dwell in these dark places because they lighten my life.  Like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Key Largo, I am always in search of sunshine breaking through after a storm that only seems too great to survive.

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Reflections on Aging and Death

Last week, Franny and I were talking about our finances.  There has been such a drop in the interest paid on savings that I wondered whether it would be better to spend it down or try to live off of the interest.  When Franny questioned my thinking, I skipped all reasonable responses and blurted out “Look, I can only count on about five or six years.  I’d like to live them well.”  I find myself saying such things more often these days.

They speak less to actuarial tables than to mindset and mythology.  The mindset has to do with my experience of aging.  The mythology represents the magical ideas that shape my experience.  In this case, they are ideas about how long I will live and how long I will be healthy.  My father died at fifty; many of my friends still tease me about how I prepared them for my early death. There’s more: I shaped my image of an appropriate family size based on this supposition and not wanting to “orphan” my younger children, as happened to my father with his parents.   Now that I’ve exceeded what I thought was my allotted time, I’d like to make conscious my current myths.

There have always been people who struggle to diminish the power of death.  The great English poet, John Donne, wrote that “death shall have no dominion.”  And Dylan Thomas taught us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  I love their passion and courage but their message leaves me cold—no pun intended.  Others try to wrestle with their fears by trying to transform them into wisdom.  With wisdom, they believe, death’s dominion can be very much diminished.  But, for most of us, these quests for wisdom don’t succeed in quelling the fear very much at all.

For me, infirmity and death have increasing dominion.  The frequency of how much they enter my mind and conversation, often stealthily, is startling, especially when, for most of every day, I feel good, lively, even optimistic.  There’s nothing particularly morbid about this, at least I don’t think so.  It’s just a fact.  And I’m not alone with it. My friends tell me that they are pulled in the same direction.

Death comes to my door when I try to plan for the future, whether it’s a question of money, wills, diet, exercise, work, or vacations.  There’s always the question of how long I will have to enjoy things, how long I will be able to get around well, how much my wife and I want to spend on ourselves and how much leave to our children or to our causes. Premonitions of death slide into mind when my stomach is upset for “too long,” when my knees ache too much, when I’m breathing so much harder than I used to after an uphill climb.

There are times that I think about death because I think I should.  Isn’t that what people my age – 74 — do?  Irving Howe puts it this way:  “I think of death because it seems proper at this point in life, rather like beaming at the children of younger friends.”  It’s also proper in formal ways: making out a will; making arrangements with your children, because it can sneak up on you any time.

We plan and prepare for death as though we really could. The process can be almost ceremonial.  We try to imagine dying.  We might begin to write our own obituaries.  We wonder how people will think of us when we are gone, maybe even make adjustments in how we live so that we are remembered well.  We try to be kinder, more generous, even more interesting.  We do this until it seems too hard and we tell ourselves, with some irritation, that “I am who I am,” as though someone is trying to take that away.

Grandchildren are a constant stimulus.  Will I live to see Molly, our seventeen year old granddaughter, married, with children, if she so chooses?  Maybe.  The other day, my six year old grandson, Eli, proclaimed that I would surely be around to meet his children.  “Well, Eli, maybe not.” He looked disappointed, pondered this possibility for a while, then acknowledged what I’d said.  “You would be very old, Grandpa.”  Franny and I wonder if we will live to see our younger grandchildren graduate high school, find professions, get married, have children.  Probably not, at least for me.  (I’m a bit easier about hitting a few of these markers with my second grandchild Jake, already a high schooler.) These “imaginary” events become markers for us, and these subjects come up all the time, as if thinking about the future this way might give us more control over what will happen.

Acute Illness brings death to the door.  I had a major surgery for a hiatal hernia in December.  It’s not clear that it has been a complete success and I might need reparative surgery in the upcoming months.  That gives me lots of time to contemplate “what if’s”.  This is catastrophic thinking brought on by real danger but there are many other aches and pains that kick me onto that increasingly well-worn path of concern.

When friends die, as they are doing with greater frequency these days, death comes powerfully to mind.  The worst, though, is seeing friends who have become terribly frail.  It is beyond poignant.  I identify with them and reject the identification at almost the same time.  It is their ongoing presence that makes it hard to maintain my own defenses and makes me wonder if death isn’t more desirable.  That is, until I start to think of death’s meaning: not being, not existing.  That is terrifying, and I want more of life; in  Howe’s words, a “greediness for time” takes over.

Some people play out their “greediness” by creating “bucket lists,” experiences that they must have before the end.  Some have relationships to mend, places to go, books to write, sunsets to view without rush.  I could extend this list a great deal, as could each of you.

The main point is, though, that as I age, death becomes more and more a part of my life, not something peripheral or grafted on.  It is part of my interior life, my social life, and my physical life.

Over time, though, I have learned to live a little more comfortably with death.  Thinking and talking about it, makes it less terrifying.  It brings it down to size, at least a bit.  Living for long stretches of days and weeks with full energy and concentration, even zest, also brings it down to size.  I won’t or don’t let it dominate me.  So far, I can neither turn away nor stare directly at it.  A sideways glance seems right for now.

That I have already lived the great majority of my life is a fact.  That I am declining and, soon enough, will find myself infirm—that’s for damn sure.  And I’m pretty sure that I will die one of these days.  If the obituaries that I now find myself reading more closely are to be trusted, that day will come sooner than I would like.

How I respond to these ‘facts’ though, that’s partly up to me.  It’s a state of mind that can shade many ways: gloomy, sunny, ironically, matter-of-factly.  I believe that I have some control over this.  Victor Frankl, writing of his time in a German concentration camp, put it this way.  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  I can at least try.